Finding Ancestors in Federal Land Records

Some of the best genealogy records come from interactions between our ancestors and the United States federal government.  Government land records are an excellent illustration of this fact.  Over the years, the government has kept careful track of all federal land transactions and provides free online access to the public at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management website.  This website front ends a database of more than 5 million land titles entries dating back to 1820.

You owe it to yourself to take a few minutes to search this database for your ancestor’s names.  If your ancestors purchased land from the government or were land granted as a part of a war pension, land records should show up in the database.

Just click on the link on the menu bar called “Search Documents”, select the state in which your ancestors resided, enter their last name and hit the “Search Patents” button to see what record matches are found.  If there is a hit, click on the patent image link to view a digitized image of the source document.  The document will reference the Homestead Act if the transfer of land was executed as part of a homestead claim.

Homestead Land Records

If your ancestor was a homesteader and met all the requirements for gaining title to their claim, a patent record should exist.  Homestead files are a holy grail document for family researchers due to their size and detail.  The homesteading process produced a lot of paperwork and provide genealogists with some interesting insights into a homesteader’s life.

Homestead records often reveal juicy bits of information such as the monetary value of the owner's property; the amount, description, and value of crops grown; and the dimensions of the house, barn, or corncrib.  Paperwork may include descriptions of the property and completed improvements, citizenship applications, family Bible pages, marriage or death certificates, newspaper clippings and affidavits. 

If you are lucky enough to have a homesteading ancestor, I encourage you to go one step further and request a copy of their homestead file from the National Archives.  I describe the process for making this request below.

Homesteading Basics

By 1880, there were 31 million Americans living on farms.  If you had relatives living in the Midwest region of the country during this period, there is a good chance that they were farmers and possibly even an original homesteader.  The Homestead Act of 1862 was an important tool for settling much of the American heartland as it converted vast amounts of public land to private (tax paying) ownership.

The act allowed people from all walks of life to pursue the dream of owning their own land.  People from all walks of life including non-landowning farmers, immigrants, single women, former slaves and get-rich-quick schemers all jumped at the chance to become landowners. 

The U.S. government partitioned large swaths of raw land into 160 acre tracts which just about anyone could own outright if they met the specific requirements of living on the land and making improvements.  There was no lack of people willing to take the government up on their offer of “free land”.

Obviously, the land was not “free” by any stretch of the imagination.  It took a lot of sweat equity to meet the ownership requirements.  Only those with a significant amount of grit and determination were able to make a go of it.  Homesteaders had to demonstrate a willingness to work hard and endure the many hardships required to create an operating farm out of raw land.  Many homesteaders abandoned their claims or sold off to someone else before the government requirements for ownership could be met.

Requesting Copies of Homestead Files

If one of your ancestors was a homesteader, you can request a copy of their homestead file.  Armed with a legal description of your ancestor’s homestead (specifically the section number, township number and range number), you can request a copy of your ancestor’s homestead file from the National Archives.

Although efforts are underway to digitize the entire collection of homestead records, you can still request a copy of your ancestor’s record using form number NATF 84 from the National Archives website.  The form appears quite complicated, at first, but just requires a few specific bits of information you can get off the Bureau of Land Management website to help them locate the correct file.  Fill out the payment section and send it in through the U.S. mail.

Federal land records are a resource that should not be overlooked.  Thanks to their free and easy access on the web, there is no excuse for leaving this stone unturned.  You never know when a simple database query will lead to a significant research breakthrough like locating your ancestor’s homestead land records.

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